Rewriting old scores

Theatre - Sheridan Morley finds two classic musicals that do not belong on the London stage

Before the year is out we will have the Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock and the Julie Andrews vehicle Thoroughly Modern Millie transferred from celluloid to the stage. This week's old movie transposed to the Shaftesbury Theatre is the 1953 Calamity Jane, starring Doris Day. And this hyperactive, Annie Get Your Gun-type Wild West songfest has Toyah Willcox, apparently on speed, in the leading role.

A score by Sammy Fain which includes an Oscar-winning song, "Secret Love", and others that have somehow remained with those of us who were about ten years old when the picture was released, helps to overcome the feeling that this cheerful, hard-working production does not really belong on the West End stage.

Willcox fairly batters you into admiring her irredeemably perky performance as the stagecoach driver who helps the local theatre owner to import a vaudeville performer from Chicago to Deadwood without realising that she's brought the actress's dresser instead. The rest of the evening is spent sorting out this misunderstanding as well as two romantic plots involving Calam, as they insist on calling her, and Wild Bill Hickok, played by Michael Cormick, a handsome young Australian with a lovely voice.

The cast, under the steady hand of Ed Curtis, although young and inexperienced (many making their professional debuts here), are well drilled. Craig Revel Horwood's choreography, though at first sub-Agnes de Mille, blossoms outwards to remind the audience of what was so special about his work for My One And Only. Willcox is constantly moving, singing, dances like an irritating leprechaun, and expends more energy in one evening than I have in the past 20 years. The production started in Northampton and has been touring for a long time. Its simple wooden sets are more than serviceable, and James Whiteside's lighting is suitably lurid for the Black Hills of Dakota.

As hit Broadway musicals go, Golden Boy (newly at the Greenwich Theatre, in the show's first major British staging in almost 40 years) has always had a curiously troubled history. The score by Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics) is from the team that gave us such musical hits as Bye Bye Birdie and Applause. Originally, Golden Boy was one of those shows that everyone hated - except the public. Sammy Davis, Jr in the title role guaranteed it an initial run of nearly 600 New York performances, though when Davis brought it to Britain the show only limped along at the Palladium for three months.

In rehearsal, Davis fired the British director Peter Coe, but the current production shows all too clearly that the faults lay in both book and score, and were only ever covered up temporarily by Davis's charisma. In that role now, Jason Pennycooke is more than adequate, but not in the same league as Davis.

One of my favourite Hollywood film credits was for George Cukor's 1930s Romeo and Juliet, starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer. It read: "Screenplay by William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor". Here we get "Based on the play by Clifford Odets: new book by Rick Jacobs". Odets was arguably one of the ten greatest American dramatists of the 20th century. His work does not need revising by Jacobs or anyone else. Sure, the central theme of racial intolerance is looking a little dated, but as the setting is given as 1960/61 that is hardly any reason for Jacobs's heavy hand to replace the original lyricism of Odets.

Many critics I respect like this score, even love it: to me, it is a deafening cacophony of sound, fatally lacking sufficient soft or thoughtful numbers.

In a very undercast company directed by Jacobs himself, only Ray Shell as the villain, Nicolas Colicos as the manager and Sally Ann Triplett as the girl who leaves him for the Golden Boy seem to have any idea what musicals are supposed to look and sound like. Sometimes, if a musical has not been revived for nearly half a century, there is a very good reason for this.

Although it was only at the Barbican until 6 July as part of the BITE:03 festival, it would be churlish not to mention Complicite's remarkable The Elephant Vanishes, based on three short stories by Haruki Murakami and performed in Japanese. Complicite's excellent artistic director, Simon McBurney, has formed the three unrelated tales into a unified picture of modern, technologically advanced, emotionally impoverished Japan. He uses technology, physical theatre, and even traditional kabuki techniques in contemporary form to create a mesmerising evening of cross-cultural, 21st-century angst. A longer run is clearly indicated.

Calamity Jane is at the Shaftesbury Theatre, 210 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2 (0870 906 3798) until 20 September

Golden Boy is at the Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, London SE10 (020 8858 7755) until 12 July

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